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Probation officer is awarded $506,000

By Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / February 5, 2011

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A jury in Suffolk Superior Court yesterday awarded $506,000 to an assistant chief probation officer, finding that she was retaliated against after complaining about her politically connected boss in the Probation Department.

After a 12-day trial, the jury rejected charges of sex discrimination made by Helen Brown and another probation officer, Crystal Young, according to their attorney, Jonathan J. Margolis. But the jury found that the department retaliated against Brown for pursuing her complaints about James J. Rush, then a chief probation officer. They awarded her $500,000 in punitive damages and $6,000 in compensatory damages, Margolis said.

“I hope this does send a message to the new management of the Probation Department that their job is to carry out the mission of the department, which is an extremely valuable one to the public, and not to settle scores real or perceived,’’ Margolis said.

A spokeswoman for the Probation Department declined to comment.

Rush is the father of state Senator Michael F. Rush, who as a state representative in 2004 appealed to then-House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran to recommend his 73-year-old father for the chief’s post in West Roxbury District Court. Finneran told the Globe he recommended Rush to then-Commissioner John J. O’Brien. O’Brien chose Rush over the objections of the court’s top judge, who said Rush wasn’t up to the job.

The elder Rush retired in 2006 after a draft internal report found merit to allegations of discrimination by five women, including Brown and Young. Rush denied the lawsuit’s allegations.

Brown said her lawsuit led to a chain of retaliatory actions, particularly by Rush’s replacement, Mark J. Prisco. She said that at one point he took away her main duties — supervising more junior officers — and instead assigned her to oversee the front counter of the office.

Prisco denied demoting her but said her job performance had declined, according to court papers. He could not be reached yesterday.

The presiding judge in West Roxbury, Kathleen E. Coffey, felt that the influence of Michael Rush within the West Roxbury probation department had prejudiced staff against Brown. Rush served on the House Ways and Means Committee, which approved probation’s budget, before his election to the senate last fall.

“It’s my understanding that a lot of employees believe that loyalty and allegiance to the Legislature, and in particular to Mr. Rush, ensures job safety and protection,’’ Coffey said in her deposition in November 2009.

In a deposition, Michael Rush denied having influence in the department. He was not a witness at the trial.

James Rush, whom Brown and Young sued personally, settled with the two women in November for $25,000, Margolis said.

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.